July 1, 2017

Finished: Don’t Think of an Elephant! By George Lakoff

(Note: I read a 2004 edition; there is a 2014 edition.) 

The crux of this book (sort of a CliffsNotes version of Lakoff’s book Moral Politics) is the difference between how progressives and conservatives think, and how conservatives have, quite successfully, framed the issues over the past 40-plus years to promote their agenda.

Lakoff, a cognitive scientist/linguist, instructs us that every word evokes a frame. Right now, don’t think of an elephant. Can’t do it, right? Because to “not” think of an elephant, we conjure the frame of an elephant.

“Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame. When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.” (pg3)

Some takeaways:

~ Cognitive frames are the way we see the world. Reframing is social change.

~ Language activates frames. To activate new frames (new thinking), new language is needed.

~ Conservative thinking is largely based on a strict father family model. That model simplified: The world is difficult and dangerous. There are winners and losers. There is absolute right and wrong. Children are born bad and must be taught to be good. The job of strict fathers, therefore, is to protect and teach. Children must be disciplined and obey, this is the only way to morality, and how they will become prosperous and self-reliant. If everyone pursues their own prosperity and self-reliance, the profit of all is maximized. These are conservative values.

~ Progressive thinking is largely based on a nurturant parent family model. That model simplified: Both parents are responsible for raising children. Children are born good, and taught to be better. Parents nurture them via empathy and responsibility, which in turn they are encouraged to put forth into the world to make it better. In addition to empathy and responsibility, nurturant values include freedom, opportunity, fairness, two-way communication, honesty, and community service and cooperation. These are progressive values.

~ People vote their identities and values over their best interests, which is why the bottom 99% of conservatives vote their conservative values against their self-interest. [For example, why a Hispanic person may vote for someone who wants to deport them, or a sick person may vote for someone who wants to abolish their healthcare.] Identities/values and best interests may overlap, but often don’t, and the identities/values will win a vote.

~ Progressives use facts as their defense, and—find a wall to bang your head on here—facts make no sense to conservatives when they don’t have frames for them.

~ During campaigns, Republicans talk about their ideals. They speak to their base in terms of their values. Democrats talk about issues, which Lakoff says is a mistake. Liberals and progressives follow polls and decide they must become more centrist. Conservatives don’t move left at all, yet win. The goal, Lakoff says, is to activate a progressive model in people in “the middle,” those who have both models and use them in various parts of their lives. We should not move right, which alienates progressives and reinforces the right.

~ Conservatives use Orwellian language, language that means the opposite of what it says, language that mollifies people in the middle while pumping up their base and promoting their policies. For example, they name things “The Clear Sky Initiative” or “No Child Left Behind,” instead of “Dirty Sky Bill” or “Kill Public Education Bill” which would be more accurate in terms of what those policies actually do. They know people would not support what they’re really trying to do so they disguise it using language. Liberals respond by saying that’s deceiving, conservatives shouldn’t do that, which is correct of course, but they do it anyway, and they win doing it. Lakoff states that progressives must recognize such language and use it to identify points of weakness, where the right cannot just come out and say what they mean.

~ Conservatives have huge, big-money think tanks. (Like, huge money, and my next review will be Dark Money by Jane Mayer.) They have Frank Luntz, “who puts out big books of language guidelines for conservatives only, which are used as training manuals for all conservative candidates, as well as lawyers, judges, and other public speakers—even high school students who want to be conservative public figures. In these books, Luntz tells you what language to use.” Conservatives spend on the infrastructure to promote their values and agenda. Progressives spend on programs to help as many people as possible. Not much left for the infrastructure.

(A side note on Frank Luntz: His signature phrase, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear,” rings of Lakoff’s principles, and vomitous as it may initially feel, we would do well to learn from him, a master, as well. I found this article a fascinating example of the diametrical thinking and reactions to the 2012 and 2016 elections and presidencies, as well as a quirky look into Luntz.)

~ Progressives suffer from hypocognition, the lack of a relatively simple fixed frame that can be evoked in a word or two. Whereas a conservative may use two words like “tax relief,” to express their view, progressives go into a paragraph-long discussion of their own view. (Raises hand.) Using taxes as an example, we should be talking about them in terms of “investments,” from which we obtain “assets,” like roads and schools. It takes years for such language to be repeated enough to become enshrined in our cognitive synapses and become regular vernacular. We need to start now.

I followed this book in theory, and recognize its extreme importance in shifting narratives left. I am finding practicing its principles challenging. I can pretty easily talk in terms of taxes as investments and assets, but I still really don’t know how to talk to conservatives in ways that don’t reinforce their frames. (How do you say, for example, vouchers and charter schools as put forth by Betsy Cruella DeVos are about conservative control of education and threaten quality public education for everyone, without evoking the voucher and charter school frames, and thereby reinforcing them?) How do we talk to people who don’t respond to facts? I don’t think I’ll ever figure that one out, and frankly, I don’t think we should freaking need to. Facts being facts by definition should be enough, and every single day that it isn’t feels like living in an alternative universe. If it all comes down to world view, then honestly, I mostly just want to say, Your world view fucking sucks. Not too helpful, I concede.

Additional concrete examples in Don’t Think of an Elephant would be helpful, and I often reach out for input from others who have already read Lakoff’s work and began practicing these principles. But I don’t get tons of great answers, and it’s all just harder than I thought it would be. I hope that as we move forward in this time of acute resistance, we can help each other become increasingly aware of framing and language, and become more proficient at communicating in ways that help rather than hurt our causes.

We simply have to.